Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

I am biased . . . and so are you

All of us have our biases. We think we don’t. We think we’re enlightened and we don’t base our decisions on subconscious or unconscious cues, yet we do it every day, all the time.

It’s impossible not to be biased. Being biased is how we survived as a species. We saw something that looked scary and we either ran away or killed it. Those of us that didn’t gradually died off, leaving behind the ones who fled or fought.

So how do we fight against something so deeply ingrained in our beings? How do we in the twenty-first century, when fight or flight is not a crucial element in our day-to-day living (at least not for most of us), overcome those inner demons and make rational decisions?

First, we have to admit to ourselves that we have biases, that we are flawed. We like people who are like us. We know not to discriminate against those with skin of a different color or those who have disabilities or some other characteristic that sets them apart from us, but should we discriminate against those whose opinions are different from our own?

Why should we be concerned about this?

Here’s why: Diversity of opinion is a far better methodology for solving complex problems than the utilization of similar-minded folks. Having friends or co-workers who all think the same way prevents us from seeing solutions to problems from multiple directions.

I’m not saying you should go out and make friends with a bunch of people who disagree with you on everything, but if you hang out with mostly Republicans or mostly Democrats, or mostly Christians or mostly atheists, you should know that it’s going to be more difficult for you to see certain realities that you will one day wish you had seen earlier.

Second, when making decisions, try to filter that process through the lens of bias. For example, when making a hiring decision, it’s comforting to pick an applicant who we know we’ll get along with, and often times that’s the right decision. But picking only applicants who agree with our way of doing things can lead to stagnation.

It’s necessary to have some people who disagree with the crowd. Wise rulers in the past had court jesters for just that reason, to prod them to see the alternatives they might not have considered otherwise.

So consider hiring someone who isn’t like everyone else in the office. I’m not saying you should pick an obnoxious jerk just to have someone who will argue every decision management makes, but you don’t want all optimistic extroverts either.

This same rule applies to all big decisions. I love that new car over there. I want to buy it now.

WAIT. Why do I want that one? Is it just because it’s pretty? Is it because I think women will like it?

Consider: Is it priced fairly? Is it a good fit for my transportation needs? Is it reliable? I will be inside it most of the time so does it matter what it looks like from the outside? And if so, why? Because it’s important that I make a statement about myself? That’s fine, as long as I understand that’s why I’m doing it.

Understand your bias so that you can overcome it, so that you can use it when necessary and discard it when you don’t need it. If we can do that, we can create a better future – a world of amazing things. That’s the world I would like to see, but that’s not the world I write about because I don’t think that’s the world we’re approaching.


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